When I was a student, I remember working late into the night trying to complete a school assignment on my PC, when my computer would suddenly display an error message and shut down. In those days there were no real-time backups. The heart-wrenching feeling of realizing I had just lost all my work and would have to start from scratch still sticks with me.
Imagine this same feeling applied to your dental practice—you have discovered that all your data are lost, the computers are not working and there are no backups! A failure of this magnitude could mean permanent loss of patient records, radiographs and billing records. The potential repercussions are many: lost income, shattered patient trust, increased vulnerability to patient complaints, and high costs to get your systems back in working order.
As more and more dental offices integrate digital technology into their workflow, it’s increasingly important to have a disaster recovery plan in place. The plan should include safeguards to ensure that your dental office experiences minimal downtime due to a computer or system failure.
I learned early in my dental career the importance of equipment redundancy and to plan ahead for equipment or system failures. For example, my office has at least two amalgamators and light-curing machines, and extra bulbs for overhead lights. Although I do not have an extra sterilizer in my office, I do have extra instruments and access to sterilizers in other dental/medical offices in the building. I know my day-to-day operations depend on functioning equipment and a rapid response to any failure.
The steps we take to guard against equipment failure should also apply to electronic office systems, including computer systems, practice management systems and digital radiography. However, in my experience, when speaking with dentists, there is often a misguided expectation that electronic office systems “just work.” We sometimes fail to recognize that failure of these systems could have a severe impact on the well-being and value of our practices.
Patient data backup
Prevention starts with having an accessible, backup copy of the patient data in your practice management system. Making backups of patient data is a straightforward process. Most practice management systems have a “BACKUP NOW” button and provide reminders to backup data. Other systems may use processes that require the computers to be turned off, with no one accessing the system. Ensure that you understand your system’s process for backing up data and regularly perform backups.
Authentication of your backup
Dentists must routinely authenticate their backup. Authentication verifies the source of information and that the information has not been changed. It involves reloading the backup into your practice management system and confirming that all data elements are valid. This is a critical step. In some instances, after experiencing a failure in computer systems, practitioners have unsuccessfully tried to restore their backup only to discover that the data have been compromised. If you are unsure how to authenticate your backup, call your practice management system vendor. This service should be included as part of your support package.
Dentists using an electronic records system should have a disaster recovery plan in place to deal with computer or system failures. A principal part of your disaster recovery plan should include plans to backup and routinely authenticate your patient data. Effective planning will bring peace of mind and could help you and your practice avert disaster.